Managing for floods in B.C.’s lower mainland has proven very tricky to do. Over the past 100 years, numerous attempts have been made to ensure the safety of this region but most of our approaches to flood management have been reactionary at best. 

Lina Azeez

Lina Azeez

As we recover from the destructive flood events of last November, with our governments suddenly keen to prevent another flooding disaster in the future, we have the opportunity to improve how we approach flood management. Building back better calls for a collaborative, integrated approach to whole floodplain (not just flood) management.

A floodplain is a low-lying area next to a river which would naturally flood during high water events. In the lower mainland, over 350,000 people live on a floodplain, many without even realizing it.

Managing a floodplain is complex, with diverse considerations including Indigenous land, agricultural land, industrial parks, critical infrastructure such as hospitals and highways, and the needs of salmon and the entire river ecosystem. 

We can find inspiration for managing such diverse considerations in Washington State where local and regional governments, with state support, have pursued collaborative approaches to integrated floodplain management over the past decade.

In integrated floodplain management, people with otherwise competing interests find ways to agree on a shared vision, and strategies for a safe, healthy and more resilient floodplain. Instead of competing against one another for limited resources, partners work together to pursue funding opportunities and develop projects that collectively benefit the region.

In King County, Washington, Fish, Farm, Floods is a watershed-level program that supports salmon recovery, sustainable agriculture and public safety. A similar program in Snohomish County also brings together stakeholders to tackle seemingly competing values. Another program, appropriately titled Floodplains for the Future, in the Puyallup watershed has removed over 70 structures at high risk of flooding, conserved nearly 162 hectares of farmland, and restored critical salmon habitat through integrated floodplain management. 

All these county-led (a level of government akin to our regional districts) projects are supported by the state-funded, ENGO-managed funding platform, Floodplains By Design. Since 2013, this program has funded projects in 16 counties, reducing flood risk in 59 communities, improved the function of over 3100 hectares of agricultural land, restored, protected or improved over 80 km of floodplain habitat and reconnected over 2900 hectares of floodplain for salmon. The biggest lessons learned here? Building trust and collaboration are key, as is the power of long-term, stable funding and strong public-private partnerships in delivering effective programs.

There is much we can learn from our neighbours to the south as we take steps to restore and reconnect our waterways to manage for floods, support salmon and keep our communities safe. We will continue our transboundary explorations to inspire a B.C.-based solution.

*This post was inspired by a recent presentation we prepared with our partners Resilient Waters, the First Nations Emergency Planning Secretariat, and the Snohomish and King counties for the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. It highlighted how much more work is needed to move our own Fraser floodplain beyond recovery and toward resilience. 

Learn how flood control structures can help or hurt salmon habitat through animations that show how different types of floodgates and pump stations work.